MOORE, Okla. (KFOR) – May 2013 is a month many Oklahomans will not soon forget. The May 20th Moore tornado and the May 31st El Reno tornado combined caused dozens of deaths, hundreds of injuries and billions of dollars in damage.
As the 10-year anniversary approaches, KFOR is bringing you a special series of reports as we remember those lost on May 20 and May 31, 2013, as well as reflect on what we’ve learned in the decade since.
KFOR’s 4Warn Storm Team worked for days on end that fateful month 10 years ago, doing what they could to keep Oklahomans safe from some of the largest, most violent tornadoes in the state’s history.
Now, they are telling their stories from those heart-stopping, heartbreaking days of devastation.
“We knew that if a storm formed in Grady County, north of Chickasha, southwest of Moore, if it formed, it would become a supercell. The storm appeared and it was producing a violent tornado in just over 30 minutes time. And it was heading, as we know, from North Newcastle right into Moore during the end of the school day. Literally the worst case scenario,” said Mike Morgan, Chief Meteorologist. “So, we could see the writing being written on the wall as it was happening in real time. And Moore, of course, was directly in the path.”
While Morgan tracked the tornado on the radar in the 4Warn Storm Center, Jon Slater was on the ground chasing the supercell.
“So it started coming right at us and that’s when it maxed out at an EF-5. And when you see it develop, it’s just unbelievable. But then the destruction, the devastation, and you see that and knowing that while you’re watching this incredible, phenomenon, scientific thing going on, people could be dying and it kind of hits you later, hits you later,” said Slater. “But thinking back two schools were right over here, blocks away. There were children in those schools just sitting there as this monster tornado was coming right at them. And I think about if I had known that, could I have done something about that? And that never goes away.”
Although Damien Lodes and Aaron Brackett were no yet members of the 4Warn Storm Team, both say the day deeply impacted them.
Lodes, who was living in Moore at the time and studying meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, says he worried his house would not be there by the time he returned home that evening.
“And living in Moore, my heart started to sink when I started to see that storm develop,” recalled Lodes. “The one thing I’ll never forget about that day is driving home, talking to my wife, we both just said to each other, ‘okay, so whoever gets home first, I guess let the other one know if our house is still standing. If it’s been destroyed by the tornado or not.’ That seemed like the longest drive of my life going home, not knowing if it was going to be there.”
Lodes’ wife arrived home first.
“And when she got there, she called me and she’s just bawling her eyes out. And I’m terrified because I don’t know what’s happened,” said Lodes. “And she tells me, ‘It’s here. I’m home. Our home is here. It’s fine. Our house is here.’ And that was the best thing I heard all day.”
Aaron Brackett was working at KGUN in Tucson, Arizona, during the 2013 tornado outbreaks.
However, like many meteorologists across the nation and across the globe, he was tuned in to the phenomenal weather pattern.
“I just remember sitting there and just thinking, ‘this is some of the worst we’ve seen,'” said Brackett. “You could see the debris ball on radar. You could see it being lofted up just from radar. And of course, you look at the the chopper footage and the footage from on the ground and you just see what radar translates to what’s happening to people’s lives. It’s horrible.”
Brackett said the storms of 2013 confirmed what he always knew: Oklahoma was the place for him.
“For me, I really wanted to come work in Oklahoma. I always have,” said Brackett. “And I knew in that moment that this is where I had to go.”
Just 11 days after the destruction in Moore, another monster tornado formed – this time, near El Reno.
“It was surreal. Only a week and a half later. Here we go again,” recalled Emily Sutton. “Couldn’t believe my eyes that it was only a week and a half later that we were in the same scenario again.”
Sutton was on the ground, following the storm’s unpredictable path.
“It went from one mile wide to 2.6 miles wide in 30 seconds. All of a sudden, we see a large bird fly in front of us and then I feel prickles on the back of my neck. And I know that the back window’s blown out,” said Sutton. “But I’m trying tell myself, ‘It’s ok. We’re not in the tornado, I see it in front of me. Just keep going.”
The storm’s bizarre behavior proved deadly for four storm chasers – the first know deaths in storm chasing history.
“I was in my I was in my upper twenties and I felt a little bit invincible storm chasing. And I really wanted to prove myself, you know, I’m a female. I’m going to still go out there and have balls of steel, right? Well, I did, but we’re lucky to be alive. I mean, we easily could have been dead that day just like the other storm chasers,” said Sutton. “The lesson from May 31st, El Reno, is that we are not invincible as storm chasers. And we need to take a hard look in the storm chasing community about safety. It’s just an important reminder that as as much as we can do, as meteorologists and as far as the science has come, there’s still a limit. There’s still level of unpredictability. And Mother Nature needs to be respected.”